When I fell, I thought I had leaned upon a rock rubbed smooth by the water. Even when I realized it was a skull, it took another thirty seconds before it hit me that the skull was human. I screamed into the radio so loud I wouldn’t have been surprised if Smith had heard my echoes in the cave he was investigating.
Grant replied, asking for my location, but by then, shock had settled in like a weary grandmother. I fell down on all fours and stared at my discovery. My companion took over, radioing in our location and listening to the instructions that Grant spelled out. He then shot off on his ATV toward the cave. My breathing evened out as I tried to focus on the situation. I had seen skulls before; this wouldn’t harm me.
Falling back on my knees, I drew in a deep breath and stared up at the sky. The shake in my breathing abated as I released it. Breathing in and out once more, I closed my eyes, chuckling. I couldn’t believe I let an inanimate object like that freak me out. I waited, listening for Grant and Smith’s approach. I wasn’t sure if it would be by foot, ATV or boat, but on such a peaceful Sunday afternoon, I knew I’d hear them coming. The sun baked my skin, but a soft breeze off the lake made it all the more bearable.
My hair danced in the wind, and had I been beside a pool instead of a lake, I would have jumped in the water. A freezing cold shower was waiting for me at home. I couldn’t wait to stand under the chill and wash away the day. Too many damn bodies in such a short span of time for me to handle.
From a distance, I heard the ATV approach, its muffled purr rose into a choked growl. Opening my eyes, I turned and met a sight that made me smile. Grant drove the four-wheeler, looking out of place in his khakis and white button-down shirt, his simple navy tie whipping in the wind. Smith clung to the machine’s rack, his face pained with anxiety but softened by curiosity. He caught my eye, and the stress washed away from both of us. Our lips widened in synchronized smiles. I wobbled onto the two trembling sticks I called legs, ready to welcome the two.
Grant brought the ATV to a halt next to where mine had sputtered out. Smith hopped off first and walked my way without waiting on Grant. “Are you okay?” he mouthed, his gait speeding up. I tossed a slight nod, then turned and led him to the skull. Pointing, I relayed how I had found it. Smith knelt, then dropped onto all fours as I had been. From where Grant and I stood, we took in Smith’s examination with silent fascination.
My husband dipped in close, staring into the bone’s nonexistent eyes. He then moved in for an investigatory kiss, examining the teeth for any signs of its story. He pulled back, scrabbled in his pocket for his pen before remembering that it had fallen away in the cave. Grabbing a small stick, he rolled over the skull, taking in the opposite side in similar fashion.
“I’m not able to get much out of this right now,” Smith said, falling back. “We definitely need to do facial reconstruction. It’s small enough to be a woman, but I need more of the body and a face. Grant, make sure Ford has some of the divers head over here. I’m nearly certain this is the body we’re looking for.”
Smith stood, then bent at the waist, walking through the scrub and poking at it with his stick. He carved a meandering path to the lake, squelching in the exposed mud as he searched. I walked up, intent on helping, but he found his quarry before I had reached the muddy banks.
“I found vertebrae,” he called up over a hunched shoulder. With his usual disregard for self, Smith swooped down again onto his knees, this time into the swampy muck of the shore. Using the stick, he looped it through the spinal cord’s former home and lifted the bone for a closer look. Mud dripped in long streams, tangled with seaweed in a slimy goo. Smith ignored the mess, staring hard at his find.
“It looks like a cervical vertebrae, most likely the piece attached to the skull. It probably washed up by the wake from a boat and then was separated by animals coming down to drink from the lake. The body is most likely straight out from here, dropped off with the hope it could hide for years, only disturbed the next time we had a flood, and by then he’d probably be long gone.”
Smith lowered the bone for the crime scene people to remove and document once they finished with the cave. My ATV buddy would be arriving on foot soon, and he would stand guard until the CSI techs arrived. When the ranger loped up, Smith was ready to leave for his next challenge. The lake had yielded all it could for the moment.
With a dirty smile and excited handclap, Smith said, “Let’s go look at that body!”